Selecting fiction works for the category of ‘most influential’ is an impossible task and bound to be highly personal. These are not necessarily the most technically ‘fine’ examples of literary work but they are fictions whose influence has spun strongly through time. The numerous cultures on this planet differ in many ways but they have more in common with each other than differences as their literature is about people, so it is better to think of a human culture rather than a collection of different cultures. These books have one important thing in common: they all display the doings and endeavours of human beings acting their lives out in their particular times and places.
1. The First Folio by William Shakespeare
The First Folio is the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays, published as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in 1623. It was prepared by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, and contains 36 plays. The influence of the plays in the First Folio, not only on the English-speaking world but across all cultures, is immense. Every generation continues to be in Shakespeare’s debt. His plots have inspired ceaseless adaptations and spin-offs, and continue to do so.
2. The Bible, various authors
The Bible is a collection of writings ranging over a thousand years in time. It’s composed of two main books – The Old Testament and the New Testament. The claims for The Old Testament are that it is a history of the Jews while The New Testament deals mainly with the life and death of a man-god, Jesus of Nazareth, and the spread of Christianity by several evangelists, notably St Paul.
3. The Odyssey by Homer
The Odyssey is the second of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to a poet known as Homer. It is the name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the author of the two epic poems, which are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The first, the Iliad, is set during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek city states. The Odyssey focuses on the journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy.
4. Epic of Gilgamesh, author unknown
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem dating from about 2100 BCE. It is thought to be the world’s earliest great work of literature: it is certainly the oldest surviving such work. Scholars have worked out that it is derived from five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The poems evolved into the epic poem. Only a few tablets of it have survived but scholars have reconstructed most of the writing of the twelve tablets.
5. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
This is a Spanish novel published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. Its full title is The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha. The author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is an almost exact contemporary of William Shakespeare. It is one of the earliest European novels and one of the most influential. It is widely considered to be the best novel ever written.
6. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s greatest classical novels, written around the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. There is a whole scholarly field (Redology) devoted to the study of the novel. It is a most complex work, a semi-autobiographical novel, focusing on the saga of the author’s own family, throwing light on the Qing Dynasty.
7. Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Oedipus Rex (Greek title: Oedipus Tyrannus), a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, was first performed in about 430 BCE. Before the events of the play Oedipus has become king of Thebes after unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius, the king, and marry his mother. He has solved the riddle of the Sphinx, which has set him on the path to restoring the land which has been devastated as a result of a plague. He has become king and taken his mother, Jocasta, as his queen. He does not know that she is his mother.
8. Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Lost is a blank verse, epic poem by John Milton, first published in 1667. A second version, consisting of twelve books, followed in 1674. Paradise Lost is based on the biblical story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the fallen angel, Satan, and their expulsion from the Garden. There are two narrative thrusts in the poem: one following Adam and Eve and the other following Satan, or Lucifer.
9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , a fantasy novel by the Oxford mathematics don, Charles Dodgson under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, was published in 1865. It is the highly imaginative tale of a girl who falls through a rabbit hole into a dream world populated by an array of fantastic characters. Characterised as a children’s story, which was the author’s original intention, it has become a classic enjoyed, including at the present time, by adults as well as children.
10. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories written between 1387–1400, mainly in verse, in English. The tales are presented as contributions to a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Chaucer’s plan was to write two stories for each of the pilgrims, telling their tales both on the way there and on the return journey. There are some thirty pilgrims introduced but not all of them tell a tale and the work is unfinished: there is only one story from each of the storytellers.
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